Ben Roethlisberger knows his team probably isn’t supposed to be here, the No. 7 seed in the playoffs preparing to face the No. 2 seed Kansas City Chiefs. And yet, the 39-year-old knows from experience that wild things can happen once a team gets into the postseason — no matter how it happens.
“I would assume, as a group, you understand that we probably aren’t supposed to be here. We probably are not a very good football team. Out of 14 teams I think are in, we’re probably number 14,” he said. “... We’re probably 20-point underdogs, and we’re going to the No. 1 seed, the No. 1 team. I know they’re not the No. 1 seed, obviously, but they’re the No. 1 team that has won the AFC the last two years, arguably the best team in football.
“We don’t have a chance. So, let’s just go in and play and have fun.”
2. Kansas City Chiefs (12-5)
It’s been a topsy-turvy season for the Chiefs, who’ve alternated between issues on offense and on defense … and at times, both. But despite the team’s worrisome slow start, Kansas City has still managed to get right back to where everyone figured they’d be before the season: atop the AFC West. And they still have Patrick Mahomes under center … which is really the primary reason I’ve got them at no. 2 on this list. Kansas City’s going to need its defense to start tackling again after struggling mightily in that area over the past two weeks, sure, and if that unit can get back to the dominant style of football we’d seen from them during most of the second half of the season it’ll make the Chiefs hard to beat. But if that group falters, Mahomes remains the ultimate equalizer; with unmatched arm talent and a knack for out-of-structure genius, Mahomes is still capable of making his offense a postseason buzz saw.
It helps that Mahomes’s interception luck has changed in the second half of the year. During the first eight weeks of the season, he threw 19 touchdowns to a league-worst 10 picks, but the majority of those interceptions were either tipped at the line or egregiously dropped by Mahomes’s intended receiver. The wily passer has cleaned up his decision-making in his last nine games in an effort to cut down on those back-breaking turnovers, but he’s also simply gotten more help from his pass-catchers, too, and has posted 18 touchdowns to three picks in that time.
5 - Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs · Year 5
2021 stats: 17 games | 66.3 pct | 4,839 pass yds | 7.4 ypa | 37 pass TD | 13 INT | 381 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 9 fumbles
2020 final ranking: 3 | 2019: 2 | 2018: 1 | 2017: N/A
The season finale against the Broncos told the story of this Chiefs season. It took Mahomes 44 throws to get to 270 yards and seven slow drives averaging 10 plays to score 20 points, but he got the job done in the end. It was almost like NFL coordinators, overwhelmed by the brilliance of Mahomes’ first three seasons, were determined to make him play more like everyone else. He learned to be patient this season, even if it wasn’t as much fun.
TE - Travis Kelce
Kansas City Chiefs · Year 9
Kelce is one of two tight ends to land among the top 15 in receiving yards this season, posting 1,125 yards despite having some ball-security issues earlier in 2021. He serves a big flex option for Patrick Mahomes, working in open space underneath to make plays. He’s especially dangerous in the red zone and even walked-off a win for the Chiefs in Week 15 as part of Kansas City’s eight-game winning streak that launched them from the struggle bus to the top of the AFC West. Kelce has been a stud for a long time, posting six straight 1,000-plus-yard seasons, and the 32-year-old continues to be the standard at his position.
Chicago’s last hire from the Andy Reid coaching tree did not work out.
There could be some hesitancy within the organization to go after Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy for that reason.
The former NFL running back should be considered for the same reason Daboll needs to be at the forefront of the coaching search.
Bieniemy helped mold Patrick Mahomes into a star in Kansas City, and there is the potential for him to do the same with Fields.
Bieniemy has been on Reid’s coaching staff since 2013, and he is widely viewed as one of the top head coaching candidates for this cycle. He was held in the same regard during last year’s hiring process, but he did not get a job.
The 52-year-old is more than ready for a head coaching gig. Chicago would face competition from across the league to land Bieniemy, but it should do the work to at least land an interview with him.
As of Wednesday morning, the Bears were not directly linked with the Kansas City offensive coordinator, but that could change as the hiring process ramps up more in the next few days.
No. 7 Pittsburgh (9-7-1) at No. 2 Kansas City (12-5)
To pull off the upset, the Steelers are going to need to put some serious pressure on Patrick Mahomes and force him into making multiple mistakes. Of Kansas City’s five losses this year, four of them came in games where Mahomes threw at least one interception. If the Steelers defense is good at one thing, it’s getting to the quarterback. Thanks in large part to T.J. Watt’s NFL record-tying 22.5 sacks, the Steelers racked up a total of 55 sacks this year, which led the NFL. Of the 15 games Watt played in this year, the Steelers went 8-2-1 when he recorded at least one sack and 0-3 when he didn’t. If Watt can get to Mahomes once or twice, that could give the Steelers an outside chance to pull off the upset.
On the other hand, the biggest problem for the Steelers is that if this turns into a shootout, they simply don’t have the firepower to keep up.
The pick: Chiefs 30-20 over Steelers
Round 1 - Pick 29
Cameron Thomas DL
Thomas produced more as his career progressed at San Diego State. He’s the long, high-motor edge rusher Kansas City needs.
Around the NFL
Irsay met with coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard at the team’s facility in Indianapolis as soon as they returned from Jacksonville on Sunday night.
“I love his approach and how demanding and holding us all accountable, but also showing support as an owner that he wants to do whatever it takes to get our organization to the top, to get our team to the top,” Reich said. “It was a good conversation, a supportive conversation, but also demanding and wanting answers and wanting to hold us accountable.”
The 272 regular-season games averaged 17.1 million viewers across television and digital platforms, that is a 10% increase over 2020 and is the league’s highest average since 2015.
It was expected that the audience would increase after the 2020 season was played in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, with empty stadiums presenting a strange viewing dynamic, and many people’s viewing habits changing.
The first half of that season also occurred in the midst of a presidential campaign, when many were watching cable news channels. This was also the first season when the league played 17 regular-season games. Despite the extra games, there were not many blowouts.
According to the league, 64% of all games this season were within one score in the fourth quarter. NFL games ranked in the top 16 and 91 of the top 100 telecasts on television during the season, according to Nielsen. The Dallas Cowboys were involved in five of the 10 most-viewed games, including the Week 12 Thanksgiving Day match with the Las Vegas Raiders, which averaged 40.8 million viewers. That was the most-watched regular-season game on any network in 31 years and one of only two since 1988 to average at least 40 million.
Weddle’s return to the Rams was announced by his agent, David Canter, on Wednesday. The Rams later announced that they had signed Weddle to their practice squad.
Fuller, the Rams’ defensive signal-caller, suffered an ankle injury that will require season-ending surgery in Los Angeles’ overtime loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. Fuller was placed on injured reserve Wednesday.
The Rams also are dealing with two other key injuries in their secondary. Safety Taylor Rapp, who grabbed his fourth interception of the season against the 49ers, has entered the concussion protocol and cornerback Darious Williams suffered a shoulder injury in the game.
In case you missed it on Arrowhead Pride
Because of the short time between the two games, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes compared the game to a division matchup.
“You keep a little bit of stuff here and there, but you have to come with a different game plan, for sure,” Mahomes told reporters on Wednesday. “They’re going to go through, and they’re going to watch the [previous] game plan and try to take away that stuff that we had success with the first time. We’ll definitely have some elements of it there, but we’ll definitely have something [that’s different] from what we had the game before.”
So, in a game against a familiar opponent, it’s about discovering the right balance between the things that worked before and the new things the opposing defense won’t expect. Finding an appropriate balance is something that Mahomes — as a new father to his baby daughter Sterling — has already had to do quite a bit this season.
“I’ve definitely learned different things as the season’s gone along,” he said. “Trying to find time so I can be at home and be with Sterling — and hanging out with her — but still at the same time, getting in all the work that I have to do.
“So that’s been getting to bed a little bit earlier — and getting up in the building a little bit earlier — just so I can make sure that I’m getting all the work that I’ve usually done and still get to spend that time with her.”